Apollinaire, Guillaume (Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky; 1880–1918)

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APOLLINAIRE, GUILLAUME (Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky; 1880–1918)


French poet, writer, and art critic.

Along with Blaise Cendrars (Frédéric Sauser; 1887–1961), Apollinaire is regarded as the inventor of modern French poetry. It was his Alcools collection, published in 1913, that raised him to the firmament of modern poetry. By defying classical meter without shunning it altogether, eliminating punctuation, and even drawing with words in his famous Calligrammes (1918), he invented for himself an entirely free style. However, this stylistic freedom is never a purely intellectual exercise because it is always deployed in the service of a deep lyricism that makes his work instantly recognizable.

The illegitimate son of an Italian soldier, Francesco d'Aspermont, Apollinaire was brought up by his mother, Angelica de Kostrowitzky, who came from the Polish population that emigrated to Italy following the 1866 uprising. In 1887 Guillaume, his mother, and his brother Albert settled in Monaco, where they lived until 1899. Guillaume proved to be a brilliant pupil at the lycée, winning a series of prizes. In 1897 he composed some poems under the name of Guillaume Apollinaire for the first time. His first remarkable texts were written two years later while he was staying in Stavelot in the Belgian Ardennes. After this stay, Apollinaire settled in Paris, where he rejoined his mother. From 1899 to 1901, Apollinaire established some contacts in literary circles, published work in some small magazines and wrote some erotic opuscules in order to earn some money quickly. In 1901 and 1902 he made several visits to Germany, in particular the Rhine Valley. From there he brought back the Rhénanes (Rhenish) cycle (published in Alcools), for which his sources of inspiration were not only the German and French Romantics but also the experience of the poet with a capacity for wonder. With more and more of his work being published in well-known journals, Apollinaire also took an interest in the development of the modern art of his day. He associated with the fauvists, then the cubists, and became a figure in literary and artistic life in Montmartre. He posed at this time for many painters (Henri Rousseau, Pablo Picasso). His first published collection attested to this proximity to artistic circles. In fact, L'enchanteur pourrissant (1909), illustrated with woodcuts by André Derain (1880–1954), was commissioned by the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884–1979). His second work, L'hérésiarque et Cie, published the following year, came to notice and won three votes at the Goncourt prize. By the outbreak of the First World War, Apollinaire, as a poet who was celebrated on some sides and execrated on others—with his Alcools collection being slated by Georges Duhamel (1884–1966) in Mercure de France in 1913—was an established figure throughout Parisian literary and artistic circles.

The entry into the war in 1914 represented for Apollinaire "a farewell to an entire era." He had Russian nationality through his mother, and he enlisted as a foreign volunteer in the French army on 10 August 1914. On 5 December, his application for enlistment was accepted and he was assigned to the artillery. In November 1915 he requested a transfer to the infantry—a more dangerous section—and on 17 March 1916 he received a severe head wound. Meanwhile, he had been granted French nationality. Having recovered following major head surgery, he served in the censorship unit and was made a second lieutenant, then a first lieutenant.

During the war, he experienced two great loves, with Lou and Madeleine, who must have been the inspiration for some of his poems, as well as a remarkable romantic and erotic war correspondence:

We are ready to die so that you may live
in happiness
The shells have burnt the flowers of lust
And that flower
which was growing in my heart and is called
The ghost of that flower endures
It is desire …
(Letter to Lou, 1 April 1915;      translated from the French)

In April 1918 Calligrammes was published. Apollinaire's war poems express a deep compassion for the soldiers, his fellows, and are sometimes permeated with an irony that is reminiscent of the British war poets, but they also reflect a strange fascination with war and cannot be interpreted as pacifist pleas. In fact, during the war, Apollinaire had intensified his stylistic innovations and lyricism of the prewar period (his first Caligramme dated from 15 June 1914), without changing them altogether.

Apollinaire, who coined the term surrealism (his play Les mamelles de Tiresias [The mammaries of Tiresias] of 1918 was subtitled "a surrealist drama") was to remain the main reference-point for the young French poets of the twentieth century, although André Breton (1896–1966) was later to criticize his patriotism. He died of Spanish influenza on 9 November 1918. According to the legend, partly forged by his friend and rival Blaise Cendrars, he was buried on 11 November during the Armistice celebrations. In fact, he was laid to rest two days later.

See alsoSurrealism.


Primary Sources

Apollinaire, Guillaume. Œuvres poétiques. Paris, 1965.

——. Œuvres en prose complètes. 3 vols. Paris, 1993.

Secondary Sources

Bohn, Willard. Apollinaire and the International Avant-Garde. Albany, N.Y., 1997.

Boschetti, Anna. La poésie partout: Apollinaire, hommeépoque (1898–1918). Paris, 2001.

Nicolas BeauprÉ

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Apollinaire, Guillaume (Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky; 1880–1918)

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